The 10,000 Hour Rule — Does it apply to coaches?


In his bestselling book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argues that success in most fields is usually accompanied by at least 10,000 hours of study. In fact, this was such a common phenomenon that he uses the term as shorthand throughout his book as a benchmark for a commitment to success.

Gladwell chaired a panel at this morning’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference—available online, if you’re interested—that featured Daryl Morey, Justin Tuck, Mark Verstegen, and the always delightful Jeff Van Gundy.

In the main, the discussion organized itself around the question of what is the more important characteristic of an athlete, talent or commitment?

Gladwell began by provocatively suggesting that one’s natural talent is often a hindrance to their development—that is, in the sense that one might coast on native ability and never take the time to adequately develop their skill sets. The discussion spilled over into subjects such as the necessity of coachability within a player and the coming benefit of more comprehensive psychological evaluations of players. Van Gundy stated that he’d rather see a complete psychological evaluation of a player rather than a comprehensive advanced statistical breakdown of him.

But here’s what struck me: the entire conversation centered around player development and evaluation. But if 10,000 hours of practice really is a minimum necessary requirement for success, then why is the turnover rate amongst NBA head coaches so high? And, approached from the opposite end, once a coach has greatly exceeded the 10,000 hours mark, and with only modest head coaching success, why are NBA teams so quick to hire retreads?

At a minimum a coach would need to log 60 hours a week for 3.2 years before he reached the 10,000 Hour mark. Many NBA coaches don’t make it nearly that long.

Another way to come at this is to ask whether teams track these things, and, if so, what sort of development programs they put in place to  their coaching staffs? It seems to me that the development of coaches is just as crucial to the health of a franchise as the development of its players.

Gladwell’s rule, I would think, would support the notion of team’s developing programs, rather than rotating into new programs with each short-lived coaching change. Perhaps the success of the Spurs, Lakers and Jazz is partially attributable to the existence of continuity within a franchise, even if said program is talent-rich like the Lakers. When the Jazz recently extended Tyrone Corbin to a three year contract,  some wondered why the Jazz were so eager to commit to Corbin prior to the offseason. In the aftermath of Jerry Sloan’s departure, many expected Corbin to wear the interim tag until the offseason, at which time Utah would reevaluate its coaching situation.

But based on the Sloan Conference’s opening panel, and assuming the Jazz know Corbin well from his time as an assistant to Jerry Sloan, it makes sense to keep the continuity in place and give Corbin an opportunity to develop as a head coach.

For more on this discussion, Brendan Jackson takes up the question talent vs. hardwork over at Celtics Hub.

  • Alix Babaie

    Commitment with marginal talent over minimal commitment with raw talent wins every time.

    Think about some of the knuckleheads who have come and gone from the NBA.

    Example: JR Rider went from Slam Dunk Champ to Celebrity Rehab.

    I definitely see where having a disciplined commitment to your craft would be something that teams need to track as it pertains to the coach.

  • Quick Outlet

    Hats off to the 48 MOH crew. These last few days of posts have been a blogging tour de force!

  • Jacques

    Haven’t read the Outliers, but Gladwell’s other book, Blink, was tedious as hell as he repeats the same obvious logic over and over again. My sister read this and she said it’s no different………..

  • rob

    The Spurs and Jazz I understand the parity. The Lakers on the other hand have changed system and philosophy many times and remained succesful regarding championships while the Jazz have been to only one nba final since Sloan’s presense. I guess the best arguement would be Pop and the Spurs system…but does the system work without Tim Duncan? Could it survive and continue if the Spurs don’t have Duncan?

  • Colin


    “the Jazz have been to only one nba final since Sloan’s presence.”

    They’ve been to 2 NBA finals.

  • A-Train

    Van Gundy as an announcer is tragic

  • SAinSLC


    You haven’t let Van Gundy get to that 10,000 hour mark, though I suppose my ears might bleed waiting for that moment…

  • Steve Kauffman

    Excellent points Henry. I’m obviously prejudiced because I represent Ty. But this was a no- brainer for the Jazz and they handled it expeditiously and professionally. They were also probably aware that if they gave him the “interim tag”, he would have probably had great leverage with the openings that will be out there.

  • Kyle

    I liked the Stromile example as someone that Morey and JVG discussed fitting into Gladwell’s theory. Wrote about it here: . Also, Iverson – talking about practice – would seem to be just like McGrady, in not needing repetition.